What Ashley wished and protested she could do — and even intended to do — did not match her capacities. She demonstrated that she was unable to function in an environment with unlimited freedom and limited structure. She required a setting where help and supervision were built in, where she could not get lost and hide, and fall so hard. And, most of all, she needed her parents to recognize this and not be afraid make hard decisions with her.
Ultimately, Laura phoned her daughter’s therapist, who was able to help make explicit what the realistic choices were for Ashley and her family. When presented with limited options for what she could do going forward, Ashley not only seemed relieved but, interestingly, selected the plan with the most structured and contained environment (a therapeutic residential environment combined with college). This choice was telling and startled her parents – who had been too caught up in their own emotions to recognize that, behind Ashley’s protests and demands for independence, was a cry for help and limits. As in this example, setting limits involves using adult judgment to protect children, based on what they can safely handle. Limits and consequences are often confused with punishment, but limits are not “reactive” or delivered out of anger, and differ from punishment in that there is no intent to retaliate and “teach a lesson” or cause the child suffering.
Not long after Ashley was accepted and decided to go to this program, she returned home to get ready. Three days prior to her planned departure, however, Ashley began desperately pleading with her mother that she changed her mind and really did not think this was the right plan for her. She no longer wanted to go. Laura could feel tension from her anger building inside her and a voice in her head saying, “Oh my God, not again – I want to run away.” However, having worked on understanding what happened between her and Ashley leading up to then, Laura was able to step back from this reaction. She was prepared and determined not to make the same mistake this time. However tempting it was, she knew it would be a bad idea to insist or close in on any decision with Ashley in this conversation – as she would have in the past out of anger and her own need for reassurance.
Laura calmed herself by reminding herself that things would be better if she could truly listen and not retreat, be reactive, punitive, or authoritarian. With this approach, Laura learned that her daughter was scared about the road ahead, and worried that she would lose all her friends. Laura was able to be empathic, while holding a calm, confident, but unspoken resolve about what her daughter needed, in effect, creating a sense of security for Ashley.
At the end of the conversation, Laura matter-of-factly asked Ashley if she wanted to do some packing for the program together and Ashley nodded in agreement. She thought to herself, “Hmm – clearly she still actually intends to go.” To Laura’s surprise, even though she had not given in to Ashley’s begging, her daughter experienced her as supportive and protective, and eventually calmed and settled down.
Afterward, Laura invited Ashley to go out for a walk. Ashley complained that she was still in her sweats and was “too fat and ugly” to go out. Laura responded by putting on her sweats too and showing up unobtrusively at the entranceway to Ashley’s room. Ashley looked up at her mom and the two of them headed toward the front door for their walk, quietly in step with one another.
Tips for Parents
- Respond thoughtfully and collaboratively with your teen to signs of trouble including: behavior changes, withdrawal, unhappiness, inertia, self-harm, repetitive cycles of academic or other failure, substance abuse, shame or hiding. Seek consultation.
- Listen to your teen’s behavior, not just their words. Understand behavior as a communication to you, and think about what the message might be. Try the following: If your teen’s behavior told a story, what would the title be? In this case, for example, the title of Ashley’s story might be, “I’m too ashamed to admit it but I’m out of control. Help!”
- Recognize that, often through no fault of their own, teens’ best intentions may not carry over into their actions.
- Notice your own state of mind. Be honest with yourself and your teen about whether you are reacting out of your own needs, fears, anger, or helplessness.
- Recognize that anxiety and worry about teens’ reactions (for example, whether they will be mad at you), should not be the primary determinant of what to do, or the gauge of whether you are doing the right thing.
- Differentiate between letting your teen have autonomy and reacting (in kind) to their pulling away.
- Recognize when your teen is unable to make good decisions – and step in.
- Remember the power you have to affect your teen, even if privately you feel powerless or not needed.
- Recognize that, though they will say otherwise (and that’s OK), teens feel protected by limits. No one likes feeling out of control without anyone strong enough to help them.
Disclaimer: The characters from this vignette are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.